Pop into any gift shop near a tourist lake, and you will see a pillow embroidered with this truth: If you’re lucky to live by a lake, you are lucky enough. Now that the holiday gift season is over, I have my own version: If you were lucky enough to get a copy of the new book “The Glorious American Essay” this month, then you are lucky enough.

In the pages of this volume, edited by the Columbia University nonfiction professor Phillip Lopate, you will see the glory of America writ large — or, more specifically, written in fairly small but eminently approachable type. And just by breezing through the table of contents and seeing the names Walt Whitman, Jane Addams, Stephen Crane, Edith Wharton, Martin Delany, Finley Peter Dunne and Willa Cather, you will get a sense that if you are lucky to be a devoted reader, you are lucky enough.

For here, in a mere 906 pages — you don’t have to read every one of them, and I surely didn’t — is a portrait of America, a glimpse at its problems (Zora Neale Hurston on “How It Feels To Be Colored Me,” written in 1928), its promise (John Dewey, “Democracy in Education,” from 1903), its depth (Herman Melville, “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” written in 1850), and its centuries-long struggle to redeem its founding pledges (Judith Sargent Murray’s “On the Equality of the Sexes,” 1790).

Plus of course George Washington’s Farewell Address and Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, which we may think of as speeches but which, then as now, were far more read than heard. In fact, it will not hurt us at this hour of American peril to read if not hear this riff: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds ...” No one should be churlish enough to accuse President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. of plagiarism if he uttered every one of those words, verbatim, at the West Front of the Capitol at the noon hour on Jan. 20.

The attentive reader will note that between these hard covers is not only Murray’s 18th-century plea for women’s rights, but also Margaret Fuller on the state of women (1845) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on much the same theme (1892). That attentive reader will be reminded by Henry David Thoreau (in “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” from 1854), Rachel Carson (in “The Marginal World,” written in 1955) and Loren Eiseley (in “The Brown Wasps,” 1971) that this country’s destiny has been intertwined with — actually determined by — the natural world. (Lewis Thomas opens his 1974 essay “The Lives of a Cell” with this sentence: “We are told that the trouble with Modern Man is that he has been trying to detach himself from nature.”)

For years our little daughters — readers then, readers now — had in their rooms framed posters from the American Girl doll series boasting this legend: “Reading: The Timeless Pastime of American Girls.” Not only girls; I often would stumble into a tree during my paper route because I walked from home to home reading the (Lynn, Massachusetts) Daily Evening Item, The Boston Evening Globe and The New York Times as I moved on my appointed rounds. Sure, I was, and remain, a hopeless nerd, but a pretty well-read one. (It didn’t help me get dates — actually, it probably repelled my few dates — but to this day I’m a master of dates, and not only 1066 and 1776.)

“After I had taught myself to read, without reading friends or family, I kept at it, more or less unaware of what hunger I was feeding,” wrote Guy Davenport, himself the author of more than 400 essays. He offers a bit of a hint: “I made the discovery that what I liked in reading was to learn things.” But really, that is only the half of it, or less, because when one of his aunt’s neighbors lent him at age 11 a book on Leonardo da Vinci, he had — why does this word tumble off my fingers onto the keyboard? — a brilliant epiphany:

I had not known until the wholly magic hours I spent reading it, all of a wet spring, that such a man as Leonardo was possible, and I was hearing of the Renaissance for the first time. I read this difficult book in a way I can no longer imagine. I pretended, I think, that I was following the plot and the historical digressions. I have not reread this book and yet I can in lectures cite details of Leonardo’s career from it. Or I think I can.

Before we part — for this is the holiday season and you have better things to do than listen to a columnist in the act of, as William H. Gass put it in a 1979 essay, “talking to oneself” — let me leave you with a thought from the great author Wallace Stegner. He wrote this in 1980, amid another great national crisis of identity, conscience and purpose:

Above all, let us not forget or mislay our optimism about the possible. In all our history we have never been more than a few years without a crisis, and some of those crises, the Civil War for one, and the whole problem of slavery, have been graver and more alarming than our present one. We have never stopped criticizing the performance of our elected leaders, and we have indeed had some bad ones and have survived them. The system was developed by accident and opportunity, but it is a system of extraordinary resilience.

I was drawn to those words at this season, and perhaps you will find them to be of comfort. Stegner surveyed American traditions and principles and pronounced them worthy. He saw America “not as Heaven on Earth, not as New Jerusalem, but as flawed glory and exhilarating task.”

A task it is, and we take up that task again after the holidays, with the advent of a new year and the exhilarating task of rebuilding a country ravaged by division and disease. Perhaps we might conclude that if we are lucky to be alive at this time — to tend to this task — we are lucky enough. So, alas, endeth my own essay.

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